Imagining the Future in the "Internet Century"

Published in: GIA Reader, Vol 11, No 2 (Fall 2000)

Gary O. Larson

The remarkable growth of the online sector in recent years can be assessed in many ways — from the rapidly expanding number of wired households (over half are now connected to the Internet) to the sheer explosion of content on the World Wide Web (which now encompasses over a billion pages). Data traffic exceeds voice traffic on the nation's phone lines now, and far more email messages than postal letters are sent every day. But perhaps the most telling indicator of the growing importance of the Internet in contemporary life is Time magazine's most recent “Person of the Year”: Jeffrey Bezos, CEO of Amazon.com, the online retailer whose stock has soared in value since its 1997 debut, even while the company itself has consistently failed to generate anything resembling a profit. America Online's Steve Case, flush with the impending merger of the world's largest Internet service provider with the largest media conglomerate (Time Warner), proclaimed this to be the “Internet Century.” And who can argue with his logic?

Inflated stock prices and e-commerce bonanzas aside, however, the impact of digital technology on our culture is much less clear. The Internet itself remains a work in progress, its ultimate character still to be determined. What began as a limited, government-funded network in which purely commercial transactions were forbidden, has evolved into a sprawling, privately financed marketplace. Its traffic patterns, for better or worse, have come to resemble those of television, a trend that does not augur well for independent voices online, including those of the nonprofit arts. Having eagerly sought refuge on the World Wide Web as an alternative to the much more constricted delivery systems of the traditional marketplace, small and community-based groups must now confront many of the same conglomerates that dominate the mass media. The homogenization of the Internet is likely to continue, too, given the much ballyhooed “convergence” of new media and old, in which the Disneys, Viacoms, and Time Warners of the world shift their attention from middle-of-the-road programming to middle-of-the-Info-Highway marketing.

The nonprofit sector and the Internet
All of these developments raise questions for the nonprofit sector in general, and for the arts community in particular, which will face new competition for leisure-time in the face of an ever-expanding menu of digital diversions. While the nonprofit sector won't vanish off the computer screen entirely, it may find itself pushed so far into the distant recesses of the online universe — a handful of tiny “dot-orgs” lost in the shadows of towering “dot-coms” — that its influence will be diminished considerably. Indeed, even the “.org” domain-name designation, traditionally reserved for the online addresses of nonprofit organizations (as distinct from commercial, educational, military, government, and network domains), has lost much of its significance, since it is now available to any party, regardless of its for-profit or nonprofit status.(1) In the process, the prospects for establishing a distinct civic sphere online — noncommercial space in which a variety of community, educational, and cultural activities can be undertaken — have become increasingly remote.

Admittedly, given the comparative paucity of meaningful transactions currently conducted online, the loss of this opportunity may seem like a minor concern. But it will loom much larger in the broadband future, when most Internet users — enjoying high-speed connections through digital televisions, set-top boxes, and other household and wireless appliances — will carry out an increasing number of daily activities through some form of online communications. At that point, the absence of a strong nonprofit presence online will leave all but the most intrepid network navigators with few options beyond the commercial mainstream. Civic, cultural, and public-service programming is apt to get lost in the shuffle.

Calls for a public lane
If the broadband era represents a crossroads in communications technology, it won't be the first time we've reached such a juncture. More often than not in the past, however, the public interest has been little more than an afterthought, with the corporate sector leading the way. It was not until long after the advent of commercial AM radio, for example, that less desirable FM frequencies were set aside for educational, public-service broadcasts. Two decades later, and five years after FCC Chairman Newton Minow had dismissed network TV as a “vast wasteland,” the federal government finally responded with the first regular program of support for public television. The cable-TV “revolution,” similarly, came and went with only a half-hearted nod to community service (in the so-called PEG channels for public-access, educational, and local government broadcasts).

More recently, calls for a “public lane” on the Information Superhighway generally went unheard during the debate that preceded the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. And although these efforts continue on a variety of fronts (including the embattled “e-rate” discounts for school and library Internet service, and the Federal Communications Commission's consideration of new public-interest obligations for digital television broadcasters), many fear that if current trends continue, the Internet will turn out to be what media historian Ben Bagdikian called “the biggest shopping mall in the world.”(2) Or, as the New York Times critic Frank Rich asked, “If you believe that the Internet is the greatest explosion of free expression and cultural resources of the past century, what happens when it is merchandised as a mass-market product by the biggest corporations in history?”(3) Internet scholar Gary Chapman, director of the 21st Century Project at the University of Texas at Austin, has offered a sobering answer to Rich's query. “Instead of thinking of the Internet as a universal, public infrastructure used for democratic dialogue, diversity and building society,” wrote Chapman in the Los Angeles Times, “we'll tend to think of it as a consumer service like cable TV, complete with updated, digital analogues of MTV, home shopping, Jerry Springer, infomercials, product tie-ins, cooking channels and all the rest.”(4)

Online freedom fighters
Ironically, the loudest voices thus far in the debate over the future of online communications have not been those of the nonprofit sector, which potentially stands to gain the most from an open, diverse, and democratic new-media system. Rather the argument has been taken up such conglomerates as Disney and NBC, who have the most to lose if their competitors are permitted to squeeze them out of the emerging broadband market.

AOL actually led the way in this regard, mounting an extensive campaign to ensure open access to AT&T's broadband platform, until AOL joined the ranks of the broadband titans itself with the acquisition of Time Warner's vast cable holdings. At that point the Walt Disney Company assumed the mantle of online freedom fighter (as ill-fitting as it was on AOL, to be sure), with an aggressive lobbying campaign against cable's tight control of broadband networks in general and the proposed AOL-Time Warner merger in particular. In a recent filing with the FCC, Disney cited the extraordinary power that a combined AOL-Time Warner would wield. By controlling both programming and the pipes through which that material is delivered, Disney pointed out, there will be “undeniable economic incentives and opportunity for the merged entity to favor its own affiliated content and to discriminate against unaffiliated content providers....” NBC, similarly fearful of AOL's new market leverage, petitioned the FCC to “establish firm principles of nondiscrimination in the treatment of unaffiliated content providers in the broadband services marketplace....”

And if media giants such as these are worried about having their say in the broadband future, one can only wonder what chance a truly independent voice will have in getting a word in edgewise.

A place for noncommercial alternatives?
“Open broadband access” and “nondiscriminatory transport” may seem like fairly arcane issues, of more concern to media and telecommunications companies than to average folks. But the policy squabble unleashed by AT&T's extensive cable-television acquisitions (now the largest cable operator after swallowing up both TCI and MediaOne) and by the more recent AOL-Time Warner merger is typical of the debates that will characterize the telecommunications landscape of the twenty-first century.

At issue is whether cable operators will have to share their networks with other Internet service providers (just as telephone companies are currently required to open up their networks to competition) and the extent to which network traffic will be treated in an even-handed, common-carrier fashion. The technology involved may be complex (and rapidly evolving), but the social and cultural implications should be clear. At stake is the ability of noncommercial, alternative, and other independent voices to find opportunities to participate in the emerging new-media environment. One way or another, as producers and consumers alike, we'll all be affected.

It is this new broadband arena, after all, featuring much higher connection speeds than today's dial-up Internet, in which virtually all organizations will conduct at least some of their activities in the years to come. This is also the environment in which most of us will receive our news and information and much of our entertainment and art. As the Media Access Project cautioned in a petition to the FCC, “Offering Internet service under the closed cable-TV system model will, quite literally, change the character of the Internet as an engine of creative technological and marketplace innovation, open entry, economic growth, and free expression.” Amidst all of the hype surrounding the broadband roll-out, that somber warning should serve as a reminder of what's really at stake at this critical point in the Internet's evolution.

Access to what?
Even without all of the monitoring, metering, and merchandising that will likely characterize the cable industry's handling of Internet access, as the intelligent set-top box becomes ground zero for most online travel, a more fundamental question remains unanswered: Access to what?

The nature of the online world now being developed, and the degree to which it will be dominated by entertainment and telecommunications conglomerates, underscores the need to foster noncommercial civic, educational, and cultural values in this new setting. This is the other, often overlooked side of the online future, beyond the booming e-commerce marketplace, and it is being all but ignored in the attention lavished by the mainstream media on Internet IPOs. As MIT Dean of Architecture William J. Mitchell observes in City of Bits, “...the most crucial task before us is not one of putting in place the digital plumbing of broadband communications links and associated electronic appliances (which we will certainly get anyway), nor even of producing electronically deliverable ‘content,' but rather is one of imagining and creating digitally mediated environments for the kinds of lives that we will want to lead and the sorts of communications that we will want to have.”(5)

Clearly, part of that “imagining and creating” is a frank assessment of what is missing in the existing online environment, starting with the communications services and information resources that our democracy will need in order to thrive in the twenty-first century. A number of worthy civic and cultural Web sites already exist, many of them the work of nonprofit organizations and educational institutions. But most of these are scattered across a rapidly expanding online universe that is increasingly marked by distinct, commercial galaxies. Sites outside the orbit of AOL, Yahoo, and other dominant content providers, unfortunately, are not likely to shine very brightly. And the entrance of other media and telecommunications conglomerates into the online universe will only increase these centralizing trends.

The “digital divide” and Universal Service
In any assessment of the online environment, we must also account for the segments of the population that remain outside of the digital loop. Much has been written about the so-called “digital divide” that separates those with access to computers and online networks, and those who, for a variety of reasons, are excluded from such access. This gap can be measured in any number of ways. A majority of all households now own computers, for example, but the percentage of white children with computers at home is triple that of black and Hispanic children. Similarly, while the vast majority of families with annual incomes over $75,000 have Internet access, only 10 percent of the rural poor use the global computer network. In affluent communities, over 80 percent of schools have access to the Internet; in low-income areas, barely half do. Less than 10 percent of minority classrooms are connected to the Internet. Recent evidence suggests, moreover, that despite encouraging increases in computer access among minorities and the poor, the “technology gap” may in fact be increasing rather than narrowing.

Curiously, for all of the glowing reports on the benefits of broadband access (which includes not only cable networks but also telephone digital subscriber line technology and eventually wireless and satellite delivery systems), rarely mentioned is the contribution broadband could make to meeting the goals of Universal Service in the digital age. In fact, the new high-speed systems, priced beyond the reach of many households, may exacerbate the problem of inequitable access to the new information technologies. The capacity to monitor every packet and create new classes of service based on the ability to pay threatens to create an even larger digital divide.

If, as expected, the cable industry begins to charge differentially for bandwidth access (placing a premium charge on packets containing video, for example), prices for Internet access will begin to mirror those of cable TV subscriptions, which have increased 21 percent since 1996. In a cable-driven communications system, Universal Service will give way to preferential service, in which “preference” is defined by the network operator's power to establish new classes of service, by the programmers' willingness to purchase premium transport, and ultimately by the consumer's ability to pay for these services. The cable industry's gain will be society's loss.

Imagining new online environments
It is not too late to begin imagining, as MIT's Mitchell advises, new online environments and innovative communications services. As unaccustomed as we may be to viewing the matter from an opposing perspective, we can begin to insist on social gains as well as industry profits, on a public-interest dividend from the build-out of advanced communications systems. In many respects, this is largely a matter of ensuring that the institutions and activities we value in the real world (everything from educational programs and social services to community organizations and cultural expressions) are enabled to establish themselves in the virtual world. An elaborate infrastructure has evolved over the years to support the nonprofit sector in the real world — a combination of public and private, foundation and corporate support that amounts to a transfer of some $175 billion annually to tax-exempt organizations. Similar attention must be paid to these organizations in their virtual incarnations, too.

Given the cutbacks in the public sector, particularly at the federal level, the financial needs of nonprofit organizations are likely to remain a pressing concern. But in an environment that is increasingly “mediated” (and with a commercialized media that is increasingly concentrated in ownership), the information and communications needs of nonprofits pose as big a challenge as their finances, lest this sector be pushed even further into the margins of contemporary life.

Finding new ways to meet these information needs in the digital age should be a primary concern as we begin to deploy the broadband systems in the twenty-first century. To focus solely on the “digital plumbing of broadband communications,” in Mitchell's words, is to overlook the more important questions concerning who will have access to the new infrastructure and what kinds of new programming and communications services they will encounter.

Unfortunately, we've grown accustomed to adopting a passive stance in relation to digital technology, sitting back and waiting for the next scientific breakthrough to deliver yet another product that is smaller, faster, cheaper, and more powerful than its allegedly obsolete predecessor. While such a stance may be sufficient in the realm of personal computing or consumer electronics, a much more active, participatory approach is needed in the telecommunications arena, if we expect to develop vital news services along with the inevitable entertainment extravaganzas, if we hope to produce as well as consume online content. Ironically, an open broadband system could foster that very involvement, but not if the system turns out to be the same top-down, market-driven affair that cable TV has become.

“Properly launched, broadband access stands to transform how Americans learn, work, and engage in civic life,” a group of public-interest-advocacy organizations wrote Senator John McCain, chairman of the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee on the eve of its April 1999 hearings on Internet access. “But that transformation depends in significant part on whether broadband services are deployed in an open and nondiscriminatory manner.”

More than merely another technical specification better left to industry to hammer out, or a contest of corporate wills that the marketplace will ultimately decide, the ground rules for broadband access will have a profound impact on the nature of online communications. “The Internet has become a dynamic, robust, and affordable platform for communication, commerce, education and the like,” the Center for Media Education, Consumer Federation of America, Media Access Project, and other groups reminded Senator McCain, “because of its open, decentralized, and competitive nature.” Just as enlightened tax policies helped fuel the vibrant nonprofit sector that has served the U.S. and its people in many fields throughout the twentieth century, so will enlightened telecommunications policies permit this sector to continue its important work in the so-called Internet Century.

Gary O. Larson, a writer based in Oakland, California, is a consultant to the Center for Media Education on broadband and related subjects.

Notes
1. David F. Gallagher, “Internet Labels Lose Meaning in Rush for Popular Addresses,” New York Times, 29 Nov. 1999. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is investigating the possibility of adding new generic top level domains (e.g., .store, .law, .arts), but it is unclear whether any of these will necessarily reflect tax-exempt status.
2. Quoted in Lawrence Zukerman, “As Media Influence Grows for
a Handful, Can That Be a Good Thing?” New York Times, 13 Jan. 2000: C6.
3. Frank Rich, “Two 21st Century Foxes Elope,” New York Times, 15 Jan. 2000: A:19.
4. Gary Chapman, “AOL-Time Warner Merger Could Steer Internet Down Wrong Road,” Los Angeles Times, date/url. Chapman also raised a question of his own, one that should give the arts community pause as they consider both the future of the Internet and their relationship to the online world: “In a decade, what will the Internet be for young people? A display of rich human diversity, free expression and admirable cultural achievement, or another boring and all-too-familiar mall?”
5. William J. Mitchell, City of Bits (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997), 5.

Resources
The following organizations and websites provide information on telecommunication issues of interest to the nonprofit community.

Media Access Project (a nonprofit public interest law firm)

Benton Foundation: Communications Policy and Practice

Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (a public-interest alliance of computer scientists and others concerned about the impact of computer technology on society)

OpenNet Coalition (an industry group of Internet Service Providers advocating for open-access policies)